We’re all familiar with movies based on books—and how they often don’t measure up to the written word. But what about movies based on paintings? A film that takes us inside a single painting, dramatizing its imagery as the primary action or narrative, is certainly not a new idea. This newspaper article from 1921 describes several canvas-to-screen adaptations. More recently, three fascinating films have brought this concept to the arena of contemporary filmmaking.
The Mill & the Cross is about Pieter Bruegel’s painting “Way to Calvary,” which depicts a religious scene unfolding in front of a large windmill. The film perfectly captures Bruegel’s visual style: skewed perspectives, clusters of flat images and a color palette of burgundy, green and chestnut. By digitally combining nearly 150 layers and up to 7 perspectives in some scenes, the director weaves an enormous cinematic tapestry. Many scenes contain no dialogue, and some involve the actors “freezing” in place to create a living tableau. At the very end, the camera pulls away to reveal the painting hanging in a museum, containing the world we just inhabited.
The tableau vivant device is amplified in Nightwatching, a film that dramatizes Rembrandt’s painting “The Nightwatch” (including material from Simon Schama’s book). One character describes the painting as “a frozen moment of theater” and this applies equally well to the movie. Each scene is like a carefully arranged stage set, as if the painting has suddenly sprung to life. The sumptuous costumes are a real standout, including a veritable cornucopia of ruffs—black and bejeweled, or white and fluffy like whipped cream; some made of feathers; even ruffs resembling giant saucers or pleated fans. The film also features Rembrandt’s dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, combining inky darkness with pools of light and a palette of red, gold and black.
Technically, the movie Girl with a Pearl Earring is based on a novel, but in fact both are inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s enigmatic painting. This film is all about light: it replicates the incredible depth and luminosity of the artist’s work, bathing everything in a clear, liquid light that grazes across surfaces and brings textures into relief. Many scenes are filmed through leaded-glass windows, passageways or half-opened doors, duplicating Vermeer’s signature point-of-view and muted palette of yellow, pale blue and gray/white. Scarlett Johansson bears a striking resemblance to the girl in the painting, and the movie is remarkable in how it reproduces the look of Vermeer’s masterpieces…or is it that the paintings themselves are already so photographic? Vermeer probably employed a lens when creating his paintings, and indeed the film shows him using a camera obscura.
Are these movies as good as the paintings they’re based on? None of them is entirely satisfying as a conventional narrative film. They’re thin on plot, slow-moving and have stilted dialogue. But if we regard them not so much as motion pictures but as moving paintings—canvases come to life—they suddenly become eye-opening windows into the way each artist sees the world through color, light and composition.